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Michelle Fisk: The Drowsy Chaperone’s Mrs. Tottendale

June 7, 2013

Strange, but true. Although her career on the Canadian stage spans the better part of three decades, and includes four major festivals as well as the regional circuit, it was not until recently that the theatre gods saw fit to send Michelle Fisk to Saskatchewan.

“I’ve been busy, I guess,” Fisk says with a laugh, casting her mind back over a conservative estimate of 125 different shows, a body of work she describes as “full and happy,” andMichelle Fisk the lifelong process of “exploring the different worlds that playwrights give us.”

The point, of course, is this. Better late than never. Last fall, Fisk celebrated her Saskatchewan debut in Saskatoon as part of the Persephone Theatre production of The Sound of Music, and now, some six months later, here she is in Regina, as a vacuously endearing Mrs. Tottendale in The Drowsy Chaperone as the Globe Theatre season draws to a close.

Previously, Globe Theatre was merely something that somebody else was doing. Fisk, a native of Vancouver who now lives in Toronto, recalls a time in the 1970s when, newly arrived in Ontario, she made the acquaintance of colleagues “who had cut their teeth on the Globe tour.”

For performing artists, being new to the Globe generally means being new to theatre in-the-round, and in this case that applies to more than half the cast, not to mention the director, Robb Paterson, and choreographer Stephanie Graham. “I like being close to the audience,” Fisk says. “I’m at home with people close by.”

It was comforting to know that artistic director Ruth Smillie was never far away. “She kept reminding us that these are not problems, these are challenges,” Fisk says. “Ruth was very helpful, with advice and with encouragement.”

Now well into the home stretch The Drowsy Chaperone has “grown tremendously since opening night,” Fisk says, and the performers are enjoying it as much as their audiences. “I liken this cast to a barrel of monkeys, and that’s not just because there’s a song in the show about monkeys. This is truly a cast of clowns, wonderfully talented clowns.”

In this award-winning musical, the spotlight is truly shared by the cast members, thanks to the script and the structure. “The writing is egalitarian, and the show is put together as though it were vaudeville,” Fisk says. “Vaudeville was all about the individual turn, and in this show every scene is a new turn for somebody. Nobody carries the whole show on their back.”

Rather than simply delivering “an impression” of the character from the Broadway production, Fisk has chosen to create her own Mrs. Tottendale, which is to say a “girlish” older woman who speaks in a southern American accent, inspired, strangely enough, by Amanda in the Tennessee Williams masterpiece The Glass Menagerie. The “airhead quality” comes from various other plays Fisk has done.

There are many humorous moments in this show, and some of the funniest scenes involve Mrs. Tottendale and her butler, Underling, played by Kevin Rothery, whom Globe audiences may remember from The Wizard of Oz, A Man For All Seasons, Amadeus and Cruel Tears.

Fisk knew Rothery by reputation only. It was not until the first day of rehearsal that she met him in person. “I came prepared to love him,” she says. “He is phenomenally generous, and such a sweet temperament.”

The chemistry that exists between Mrs. Tottendale and Underling is typical of the entire company, not only the actors, the director and the choreographer, but also the musicians, designers, technicians, and stage managers, all of whom Fisk refers to collectively as the Dream Team. “I can count on the fingers of one hand the experience of everything coming together,” Fisk says. “Of all the shows that I have done, this is one of my top five favourites.”

The Drowsy Chaperone runs from May 22 – June 9, 2013. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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